Food Incubator helps tenants market products

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Lili Courtney
LSU AgCenter Food Incubator tenant Lili Courtney poses with her salad dressing. (Photo by Olivia McClure)

News Release Distributed 04/29/14

BATON ROUGE, La. – For food entrepreneurs, getting products off store shelves is just as important as getting them there in the first place. Marketing is often key to accomplishing that, but many people starting small food businesses are unsure of how to tackle that task.

That's why the LSU AgCenter Food Incubator teaches its tenants how to effectively promote their products to stores, customers and media.

Gaye Sandoz, incubator director, said marketing can be time-consuming, but it is critical for people who are serious about launching a credible food business. She pointed out that corporations like Coca-Cola spend more money on marketing than on production.

Entrepreneurs who have a marketing plan not only benefit from having a strategy for their business, they also appear more professional and committed to retailers who may be interested in carrying their products, Sandoz said.

Incubator tenants should have a six-month strategic marketing plan, Sandoz said, that includes events tied to various holidays. Mail order websites and catalogs gear up for holiday sales in the first quarter, so it is important to stay a step ahead and identify the best ways to sell products year-round.

Sandoz said food entrepreneurs tend to do two-thirds of their business during the fourth quarter, which runs from October to December, because of tailgating, holiday entertaining and gift giving.

To effectively reach their market and make sales, entrepreneurs have to build a strong base for their products. To get started, incubator tenants are taught about the importance of doing product demonstrations in stores and interacting with customers.

Even after a product is in a store, entrepreneurs must be proactive in order to keep it from collecting dust and wasting shelf space, which makes a bad impression on store owners, Sandoz said.

"Demonstrating to the consumers is essential in order to sell a product," she said. "You have to win them over as a customer."

Planning is important, Sandoz said, because some people sell their products to many stores and don't have time to do demonstrations. When customers are faced with trusted brand-name options alongside new locally made products, they often choose familiar products unless someone is there to persuade them otherwise.

Modern technology offers other options for reaching potential customers. Sandoz suggests tenants send email blasts with updates on their products, events and recipes in which to use them.

Social media are also important. Sandoz said some people shy away from tools like Facebook and Twitter because learning how to use them seems daunting, but they are a valuable link to audiences.

"It doesn't matter if the tenants are just in their kitchen taking pictures of themselves and posting them," Sandoz said. "That's very effective to go out to the customers because they see them making it. They know it's handcrafted and can see how happy they are because they are producing their own products."

Tenants also shouldn't be afraid to contact local media about their products. It helps to have a seasonal hook, Sandoz said, such as an Easter recipe for marinated ham that incorporates their product. Such strategies give potential customers a solid reason to buy the product.

Especially in Louisiana, where food is an integral part of culture, food entrepreneurs have the benefit of a society that loves and cares about food. The local food movement has helped as well by sparking interest in Louisiana-made products.

"The small food businesses are very endearing to people," Sandoz said. "They like to watch people start their own food businesses because we are a food state and culture."

It is the entrepreneur's responsibility, however, to make sure people know about their product.

"They need to come up with these ideas about their products and focus on the unique aspects of their products and also how can it affect this season," Sandoz said.

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